Wake County

Dome placed atop Catholic cathedral in Raleigh

After a few blasts from a horn Thursday morning, the 324,000-pound dome began to slowly rise from the ground next to the steel skeleton of the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral off Western Boulevard.

Since just before Thanksgiving, workers have been building the 65-foot-tall dome on a frame, including 16 windows around the base and a copper skin that will reflect the sun. Now it was time to lift it in place atop what will become the mother church for the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh.

As the dome went up, so did cellphones and tablets held by several dozen people who came to the edge of the cathedral property to watch. This will be the parish church for Cathy Morrissey of Raleigh, who has been following the project since ground was broken early last yea. She brought coffee and a lawn chair Thursday morning.

“It’s kind of fun to be a part of something so huge,” Morrissey said. “How often does a cathedral get built?”

The other question of the day was how often does a dome get built on the ground and then lifted into place. Cara Greening, the business development director for Clancy & Theys, the general contractor, said the company isn’t aware that it has been done anywhere before. She said the idea came from executive vice president Joel “Tick” Clancy, who reasoned it would be safer and faster to work closer to the ground, with less scaffolding to erect and work around.

“To have it here on the ground, the scaffolding situation was a whole lot less complex,” Greening said.

The crane that lifted the dome Thursday arrived in pieces on 25 tractor-trailers, with another 17 tractor-trailers bringing the 940,000 pounds of counterweight. The crane’s boom was 230 feet long and can lift as much as 440 tons, making it a “relatively small crane for us,” said Jim Jatho of Buckner Heavylift Cranes in Graham. The company has several larger ones working on projects around the nation, including the new Atlanta Falcons stadium in Georgia, he said. It just ordered two cranes that are capable of lifting 2,000 tons.

“This is fairly routine, to be honest,” Jatho said.

Few in the crowd would have agreed with him. James O’Brien of Arlington, Va., the architect on the project, has worked on other churches, including St. Catherine of Siena in Wake Forest, but he said he’s never even heard of such as thing as Thursday’s dome-raising.

“It’s a fantastic moment,” O’Brien said.

It took only about half an hour to place the dome atop the cathedral, a moment that inspired Bishop Michael Burbidge and other church officials to break in to “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” Burbidge said later that as he watched the dome go up he thought of all the faith, generosity and sacrifices of the people who have made the cathedral project possible with their expertise and their financial support.

“It’s an engineering marvel,” he said. “All gifts come from God.”

The $41 million cathedral is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2017. By then, the steel frame on which the dome rested Thursday will have been cut away, creating a soaring space from the cathedral floor to the top of the dome. That’s something Morrissey looks forward to seeing.

“I can’t wait to stand underneath and look up,” she said, “and remember I saw this happen.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling